How the US helped Pakistan get the bomb

June 19, 2002


Officially, the recent string of visits by top US officials to India and Pakistan were to defuse the military stand-off between the two nuclear-armed countries. However, George Bush's regime is seizing on the confrontation to re-establish US imperial influence in the Indian subcontinent.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's June 13 offer of US technology and other assistance to "monitor" the "line of control" — the de facto border between the Pakistan- and Indian-controlled sections of the disputed territory of Kashmir — is a testimony of this ambition. The idea that British forces could join such an operation was also suggested. If implemented, future interventions by the imperialist powers in the subcontinent will be easier.

Since September 11, in the name of fighting "terrorists" in Afghanistan, the US has already established a chain of military bases across Central Asia. Using the same excuse, it has gained control of at least two Pakistani air bases and a third of Pakistan's air space.

Fuelling the fire is an arms race between Pakistan and India. A number of imperialist countries, notably the US, France and Britain, have refused to stop weapons sales to both countries even after the 11-week war over Kashmir in 1999.

British arms manufacturer Alenia Marconi Systems only a few months ago sold the Pakistani navy two battlefield radar systems for £8.5 million. Now its British competitor BAe is pushing to supply 66 Hawk fighter jets to India, for £1 billion. Despite growing domestic demands to call off the deal, British PM Tony Blair has refused even as he keeps sending "peace missions" to India and Pakistan.

The gravest fear from the current India-Pakistan conflict is that it might escalate into a nuclear war. This concern has persisted ever since the first signs that Pakistan was seeking a nuclear capability in the wake of losing the 1971 war with India.

India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, and conducting more in mid-May 1998. The Indian tests were clearly provocative in the light of the two countries' three wars since 1947. In May 1998, Pakistan's rulers answered that challenge swiftly with their own tests, confirming its long-suspected nuclear capability.

Despite the hostility between the two countries and the danger of a conventional war escalating into a nuclear exchange, the imperialist countries have never stopped fuelling the arms race in the Indian subcontinent. Peace rhetoric and posturing amounted to little more than a fig leaf.

India's strategic alliance with Russia during most of the Cold War years, and Pakistan's alignment to China, only increased US imperialism's desperation to win influence in the region.

US hypocrisy

In the most striking example of hypocrisy, Washington practically bankrolled Pakistan in its acquisition of the nuclear bomb despite its official commitment to stopping nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 1960, the US gave Pakistan a $350,000 grant to help prepare Pakistan for its first research reactor which the United States agreed to supply two years later. This reactor began operating in 1965. In that year, Pakistan made its nuclear aspirations clear when then government minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who would become the country's prime minister a few years later, vowed to build the bomb at any cost if India took the first step. A promise he kept.

Pakistan's purchase of a heavy-water facility from Canada proceeded smoothly in the early 1970s. However, suspecting that Islamabad was developing nuclear weapons with such facilities, Western countries imposed an embargo in 1974 on nuclear-related supplies to Pakistan.

The US seemed to share this concern, cutting off all official aid to Pakistan in 1979 after the country was caught secretly constructing an uranium enrichment plant.

However, US attitudes took a sharp turn after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December that year. Washington swiftly recruited Pakistan to be its crucial conduit of arms to the counter-revolutionary mujaheddin warlords.

Washington and Saudi Arabia funnelled covert assistance to the mujaheddin through the Zia dictatorship's secret police, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI). In the 1970s, the ISI established a division to procure nuclear and missile technology for the military from abroad.

Between 1978 and 1992, the US government poured at least US$6 billion into the mujaheddin factions, mainly through the ISI. Saudi Arabia offered billions more. Other governments — including Britain, France and China — also pumped arms and funds into the ISI pipeline. Throughout the decisive decade of the 1980s, Washington turned a blind-eye to Pakistan's nuclear program.

In September 1981, Washington rewarded Islamabad with a six-year, US$3.2 billion aid package, half of which was in weapons. Three months later, the US president was given the authority to waive any sanctions against Pakistan so long as he considered it in the United States' "national interest" to do so.

Islamabad's nuclear agenda was so rampant that a 1983 declassified US government assessment concluded that there was "unambiguous evidence that Pakistan is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons development program" and that the ultimate application of the enriched uranium produced was "clearly nuclear weapons".

In February 1984, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's top scientist overseeing the country's nuclear program, even boasted during a press interview that Pakistan had already achieved nuclear-weapon capability.

In July 1984, the New York Times reported that US intelligence agencies had reason to believe that China had supplied Pakistan with the design of a tested nuclear device. This was the beginning of an endless stream of reports in the Western media over subsequent years, based mostly on US intelligence sources, about China's alleged support for Islamabad's nuclear weapon infrastructure.

In March 1985, a West German court convicted a German businessperson of smuggling a complete uranium hexafluoride manufacturing plant to Pakistan.

This mounting evidence proved to be too hard to ignore, forcing US Congress in 1985 to introduce the window-dressing of requiring the president to annually certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device as a condition for more US aid.

Then in December 1987, a Canadian of Pakistan origin was convicted of attempting to export extra-hard steel that could be used in making centrifuges for enriching uranium. Yet, despite the US government's finding that this incident was an attempt by the Pakistan government to further the manufacture of a nuclear device, which would require the US to cut off its aid to Pakistan, US President Ronald Reagan invoked a special presidential waiver to excuse the offence.

Change of tone

Reagan's tone began to change after the Soviet Union's February 1988 announcement that it intended to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Late that year, he officially expressed concerns that he might not be able to continue certifying Pakistan's non-proliferation credentials for much longer.

The Soviet withdrawal was completed in 1989. US President George Bush senior's administration finally stopped the annual certification of Pakistan's nuclear-free status in October 1990, triggering the termination of aid to Pakistan.

However, the damage had already been done. It was too late to put Pakistan's nuclear genie back into the bottle. Pakistan's foreign minister Shahryar Khan told the Washington Post in February 1992 that Pakistan possessed "elements which, if hooked together, would become a nuclear device". In 1993, former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg claimed that Pakistan had already completed all the steps for a nuclear weapon in the late 1980s. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said in 1995 that Pakistan already possessed an atomic bomb when he was in power between 1991-93.

Unfortunately, Washington's hypocrisy did not end there. Under the US Arms Export Control Act, President Bill Clinton was supposed to impose military and economic sanctions on both Pakistan and India following their May 1998 nuclear tests.

However, fearing that US agribusiness and other economic interests would be disadvantaged in the Pakistani and Indian markets, a month after the tests Congress granted both countries an exemption from sanctions for one year. Days later, the president was given additional authority to waive sanctions for a year at a time.

Funding restored

Clinton swiftly restored funding for military training and commercial credit programs to both countries. He also gave the crucial green light which made possible renewed International Monetary Fund loans to both countries. Clinton also gave permission for Islamabad to be paid US$325 million in cash and US$140 million in goods as compensation for 28 F-16 aircraft that Pakistan had partly paid for but were never delivered due to the 1990 sanctions.

In October 1999, just before the military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power, more proposals to ease the sanctions against Pakistan were tabled, including giving the US president permanent authority to waive such sanctions. Related legislative statements made it clear that the "broad application" of export controls was "inconsistent" with US national security interests. These proposals, which were all approved, eased not only the 1998 sanctions on Pakistan and India, but also the residual 1990 sanctions directed at Pakistan's nuclear weapons programs.

Following Musharraf's coup, Washington briefly imposed new sanctions. However, these (as well as all sanctions against India) were waived two weeks after the September 11 attacks in the US. President George Bush junior moved quickly to enlist both countries as close allies in his "war on terrorism".

Rumsfeld made clear during his November tour of South Asia that he was not worried about the nuclear weapon capabilities of India and Pakistan, expressing confidence that the regimes were "careful and respectful" in handling those facilities safely.

Visiting India and Pakistan again this month, Rumsfeld praised both governments for their help in chasing the al Qaeda remnants and offered Islamabad and Delhi more US military support.

From Green Left Weekly, June 19, 2002.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.